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Cover Story October 5th, 2006


 

 

by lyle e davis

The kid was 18, maybe 19 years old. He lived in Arizona.

He didn’t remember getting married . . . nor did he remember having two kids. He was pretty sure he would have remembered momentous occasions such as that.

One day he had gone to Home Depot to apply for a job. “Sorry,” they said, “we can’t hire you . . . you see, you’re already working for us over in a place called Escondido, California.”

This is how one young man learned he had become another in the growing list of victims of identity theft . . . and began the tedious and expensive task of clearing his name and his credit.

Someone had gotten ahold of his name, his social security number, and other data, and sold it to an illegal alien. That illegal alien had married his girl friend, in the name of the victim, had bought a car, in the name of the victim, and had two children born to that marriage, also bearing the victim’s surname.

No policy was in place to annul the marriage automatically so the victim had to hire an attorney to annul the marriage to a woman he had never known, let alone enjoyed conjugual visits.

This is but one case history of many we discussed recently with Detectives Bob Curtin and Damon Vander Vorst of the Escondido Police Department.

Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America, affecting half a million new victims each year.

“In spite of all the publicity nationally and locally, we are still amazed that so many people are so easily duped out of their money,” said Curtin. “Some identity thefts are fairly sophisticated, others are really just as simple as asking someone for their social security number. It’s remarkable how much personal information some folks are willing to provide, just for the asking.”

Often, but not always, the victims are the elderly.

Another local case history:

The victim was a 90 year old woman, sharp, alert, lucid. She hired a housecleaner who came once a week. She befriended the victim and soon offered to collect the mail, to buy groceries, and soon suggested she go ahead and have the victim sign the checks for groceries and other bills. Eventually, this housekeeper stole blank checks and began to forge the victim’s name. She would pass the checks at the local liquor store then when she’d retrieve the mail she’d hide the bank statements, transfer funds from one account to the other so the victim did not notice anything unusual. This scam was so successful that the 90 year old lady lost $190,000 over a four year period.
The suspect was discovered only when one of her friends stole a check and tried to pass it. She got caught, implicated her friend . . . the suspect learned she was in trouble and fled the area. She is still at large.

That was a relatively simple scam. Others are more sophisticated and utilize state of the art electronics. There are, for example, a number of cases where waiters/waitresses and other service personnel will take your credit card and slide them through a skimming device. This is a magnetic card reader that reads and saves your credit card number and security data.

It’s fairly easy to become the victim of identity theft.

On any given day you may well write a check at a store, charge for tickets to some type of entertainment, rent a car, mail your tax returns, change service providers for your cell phone, or apply for a credit card. You may view all of these for just what they are: routine transactions. The identity theft views them as opportunities.
Identity theft is a serious crime. What’s more, cops have a hard time catching the bad guys and prosecuting them. People whose identities have been stolen can spend months or years - - and thousands of dollars -- cleaning up the mess the thieves have made of a good name and credit record. In addition, they may have caused you to lose job opportunities, be refused loans for education, housing, or cars, and even get arrested for crimes you didn’t commit . . . but that the bad guys committed, using your good name.

About the only way to avoid this identity theft is to never let your credit card out of your sight. Often, in a crowded and busy restaurant or night club, this is not practical.

The simplest solutions are:
• Protect your personal information.
• Do not leave your wallet or purse in your car.
• Shred your trash.
• Stop convenience checks. Advise credit card companies and banks that you do NOT want them.
• Don’t give personal information to people you didn’t call. Banks, well known stores, any business who calls you and seeks personal information, decline to respond. Get their name and position. Tell them you’ll call them back. Then you place the call to your known bank or business (not to the number they gave you).

Identity theft or identity fraud is the taking of a victim’s identity to obtain credit and credit cards from banks and retailers, steal money from a victim’s existing accounts, apply for loans, establish accounts with utility companies, rent an apartment, or get a job (or wife) using the victim’s name.

How do they work? Some may call your credit card company and change the billing address on your account. They then run up charges on your account . . . and you don’t know about it because your bills are being sent to the new address. Or they may open up credit card accounts in your name . . then they go out and charge, charge, charge. When you don’t pay, the delinquent accounts are reported on your credit report. They may open up a bank account in your name and write bad checks on that account; They may counterfeit checks or credit and debit cards, or authorize electronic transfers in your name and drain your bank account. This last method was used in an unsuccessful attempt to steal money from my late mother’s account. Fortunately, I had a Durable Power of Attorney and was handling my mom’s affairs. I found the bank statement, did not recognize the company who had charged about three separate bills (all for relatively low amounts and uneven numbers, such as $234.61 . . . so as to avert suspicion). I caught the frauds, reported it to the bank and the money was restored to mom’s account and firm instructions to the bank to not honor electronic drafts without my personal approval. The bad guys never got caught. I doubt the bank spent a whole lot time looking for them as the total loss to the bank was only about $900 (the amount they had to reimburse my mom’s account). Another thing that identity thieves do is file for bankruptcy under your name to avoid paying debts they’ve incurred under your name, or to avoid eviction. They may buy a car in your name . . .or get a driver’s license issue to them, with their picture, but your name. If arrested, they may give your name to the police. That makes for a lovely little problem to sort out, doesn’t it?

The imposter obtains your social security number, your birth date, and other identifying information such as your address and phone number. Suddenly, they have all they need to become . . you! Victims are left with a tainted reputation and the complicated task of restoring their good names.

There are four types of identity theft crime:

Financial ID Theft —This type of case typically focuses on your name and Social Security number (SSN). This person may apply for telephone service, credit cards or loans, buy merchandise, lease cars or apartments.
Criminal ID Theft —The imposter in this crime provides the victim's information instead of his or her own when stopped by law enforcement. Eventually when the warrant for arrest is issued it is in the name of the person issued the citation- yours.
Identity Cloning —In this crime the imposter uses the victim's information to establish a new life. They work and live as you. Examples: Illegal aliens, criminals avoiding warrants, people hiding from abusive situations or becoming a "new person" to leave behind a poor work and financial history.
Business or Commercial Identity Theft —Businesses are also victims of identity theft. Typically the perpetrator gets credit cards or checking accounts in the name of the business. The business finds out when unhappy suppliers send collection notices or their business rating score is affected.

No matter what type of identity theft is involved, the result is a long and sometimes arduous road to recovery. As in all crimes, preventing the crime from occurring in the first place is key.

Check Your Disposal! —What is in your dumpster or garbage cans? Is it, or they, a treasure chest for thieves? Are electronic/paper documents and databases containing personal information rendered unreadable prior to disposal?

There are a number of businesses who specialize in making life a little easier for victims . . . and life a little more difficult for the bad guys.

The reader may want to check with someone like Liberty Mutual Insurance. They have an endorsement to their Home Owners Insurance Policy for only $25 per year that provides $30,000 of Identity Theft Insurance. (A maximum of two occurrences per year with loss maximum of $15,000 each). This insurance does not cover actual cost of a loss (usually the bank(s) or credit card companies will credit your account(s) if you notify them within a reasonable time of the fraud. This endorsement is subject to a $250 deductible.

This particular endorsement pays toward the cost of repairing credit, affidavits, certified mail, lost wages, up to $500 per week for up to 4 weeks as you spend the time necessary to repair your credit, including the compensating for having to go to court. It also addresses loan application fees for new or renewal of loans, reasonable attorney fees, and may be used to defend in lawsuits against collection agencies . . . for the removal of wrongly entered civil or criminal judgments. If needed, you may use these funds to get an attorney to go after consumer credit information or to challenge information. It also covers any charges for long distance calls to remedy identify theft/fraud problems and correct credit. You may find out more about this service from Liberty Insurance at their Carmel Mountain Ranch location, for information call toll free: 866.520.6782.

Their company actually assigns you a credit counselor who reports to the insurance company and all credit reporting firms that this is a fraud . . .and will walk you through to get credit straightened out. It would seem to be a fairly modest investment for all of this service at only $25 per year.

That’s just one service you may use to repair credit once the bad guys (or gals) have struck. But why not cut the crooks off at the source? Why not arrange to have your financial records shredded? Banks and many businesses do just that. One firm that offers such a service is Data Disposal, Inc. They offer a mobile destruction service that will come to your office or home - gather up your documents by the box and see that they are destroyed. You may have them destroy your documents on-site . . or they will transport and store the data in a secure truck and warehouse until they can be destroyed later, all under tightly controlled conditions. You may have on-site or off-site destruction . . . whichever works best for you.

Locally owned and operated, the firm was started in 1984 by Jim Carroll and is run today by his sons, Bob and Galen.

They will bring their trucks to your office or home and see to the proper and safe destruction of your sensitive records.

Due to new state and federal privacy laws their business has boomed. More and more people want to protect themselves against identity theft and thus want to ensure their documents are denied to the bad guys.

Their trucks are in North County on Mondays but they serve all of San Diego County. They can and do collect and burn up to 25 banker size boxes of material for just $84. They will also do on-site destruction of documents . . . this is usually reserved for particularly sensitive material.

You can reach Data Disposal at 619.585.0184.

ID theft is a high profit, low risk crime. Studies have shown that it has a high level of recidivism.

What Should You Do If Your Personal Information Has Been Lost or Stolen?
• Financial Accounts: Close accounts, like credit cards and bank accounts immediately. When you open new accounts, place passwords on them. Do NOT use your mom’s maiden name, your birthdate, the last four digits of your Social Security number, or your phone number. Make it hard, not easy, for the bad guys (or gals).
• Social Security number: Call the toll-free fraud number of any of the tree nationwide consumer reporting companies and place an initial fraud alert on your credit reports.
• Driver’s license/other government issued ID:
Contact the agency that issued the license or other ID document. Follow their procedures to cance the document and get a replacement. Ask them to flag your account so no one else can get a license or other ID from them in your name.

Always file a police report and with the Federal Trade Commission.

In California, under Penal Code 530.6, it is the legal right of any victim of a crime to request law enforcement documentation. The Escondido Police Department policy is to take a police report and give a copy to the victim (which will help in straightening out your credit reports and other problems typical of identity theft). In unincorporated areas you would report to the nearest Sheriff’s office.

The fraud alert can help prevent the bad folks from charging any more items or opening any other accounts in your name. The next step is to contact any one of the following:

Equifax 1.800.525.6285;wwweqifax.com; PO Box 740241, Atlanta, GA., 30374-0241.
Experian: 1.888.EXPERIAN(1.888.397.3742);www.experian.com;PO Box 9532, Allen, TX. 75013
Transuinon: 1.800.680.7289; www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, PO Box 6790, Fullerton CA.920834.6790.

By law, any of the above contacted are obliged to notify the other two companies. Once you place the fraud alert in your file you’re entitled to order free copies of your credit reports.

Once you get the credit reports, check them carefully. Look for inquiries from companies you haven’t contacted, accounts you didn’t open, and debts on your accounts you can’t explain. Make sure all your data, including your SS# is correct. If you find fraudulent information, get it removed. Continue to review your credit reports periodically.

To Correct Fraudulent Information in Credit Reports: The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) allows you to correct fraudulent information. The consumer reporting company as well as the information provider (such as your bank or credit card company) are legally responsible for correcting the fraudulent information. Contact both companies.

Send them a copy of an identity theft report and a letter outlining what information is fraudulent.

Note: In researching this articled we found the most helpful and complete information was contained in an easy-to-read booklet provided by the FDA (Federal Trade Commission). The booklet, “Take Charge: Fighting Back Against Identity Theft,” can be obtained, free of charge, by calling 1.877.438.4338, or online at:
www.consumer.gov/idtheft

As to credit cards . . .write to the creditor at the address given for billing inquiries NOT the address for sending your payments.

• Include your name, address, account number, and a description of the billing error.

• Send your letter so that it reaches the creditor within 60 days after the first bill containing the error was mailed to you. It is essential to keep track of your billing statements and follow up quickly if your bills don’t arrive on time.

• Send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested. Include copies (NOT originals) of your police report or other documents that support your position. Keep a copy of your dispute letter.

The creditor must acknowledge your complaint in writing within 30 days after receiving it, unless the problem has been resolved. The creditor must resolve the issue within two billing cycles (but not more than 90 days) after receiving your letter.

If the identity thief has gotten your name listed within the criminal justice system, immediately go to the police agency that arrested the person using your identity, or the court that filed the warrant for the arrest. File an impersonation report with the law enforcement agency or the court and confirm your identity. Ask the police agency to take a full set of your fingerprints, photograph you, and make copies of your photo id documents. To establish your innocence ask the police to compare the prints and photographs with those of the imposter.

The law enforcement agency should then recall any warrants and issue a ‘clearance letter” or “certificate of release” (if you were arrested/booked). Keep this document with you at all times in case you are ever wrongly arrested again. Contact the local District Attorney and/or the state Attorney General for additional help and guidelines.

One of the reasons you need to push for a police report is that it is a valuable tool to obtain the application and transaction records of accounts opened fraudulently in the victim's name via the federal Cantwell-Enzi act. In fact, without a police report victims are often unable to obtain these documents.

It also can be used for statistical studies, perhaps our one true guide of crime trends and increases in victimization.

Some other frauds to be aware of:

1. You are contacted (often by email) . . . “Congratulations! You have won $1.5 million! All you have to do is pay the low, low tariff of $5000 on these winnings and you are an instant millionaire. You send the money and we’ll send your check for $1.5 million via FedEx the same day we receive your check! Do it NOW! Your money is waiting! (Typically, this is “the Canadian Lottery” - but it doesn’t matter if it’s Canadian, Irish, or Russian. The lottery does not exist and your “taxes” will go into the pocket of some con artist.) Several days later you get a phone call saying your money has been delayed . . . they need another check for $1500 to pay for ‘border clearance fees.” The phone calls go on as long as you continue to send check after check after check. Don’t laugh. It happens all the time. Often to elderly people who can least afford it.

These con artists rarely are caught and when/if caught are difficult to prosecute. They are usually out of the country - sometimes in Canada, sometimes in the United Kingdom.

2. You advertise a tv set for sale for $200. A caller calls by phone and agrees to buy it, sight unseen. He sends you a check drawn on a reputable, well known firm or bank for $600 (it may even be a cashier’s check) and asks you to keep the $200 asking price, use the remainder of the funds for packing and shipping charges, and send him a moneygram for the unused balance. You do all of the above . . . and his check bounces. Further, the guy never wanted your tv set . . . he just wanted your moneygram for the balance against a cleverly counterfeited check.

3. Because of staff problems, the company says, they would like to pay you handsomely to reship valuable merchandise. They send you the valuable merchandise and instruct you to mail it to a third party. They promise to pay you, let’s say, $100 for each item you re-ship. Easy money? All you have to do is fill out the shipping label, attach it to the merchandise and ship it off. Bingo! Just like that! Easy, easy money! But, they never pay you . . . and if they do it’s with an NSF or counterfeit check. Meantime, the merchandise, which is stolen, goes to a third party, who may have paid the con man directly, or is a fence. If and when the cops locate the merchandise and trace it back, guess who’s name is on the shipping label? Yours. You are a suspect and are investigated and may well be arrested for dealing in stolen merchandise. The cops don’t know you’re innocent.

3. E-bay fraud. You find an item you are looking for at an unheard of price. You send a check and the party never ships what you bought. E-bay has internal controls to help prevent this but every once in awhile con men get through. Another E-bay fraud involves con men who will take your merchandise and ‘sell’ it on E-bay, on consigment, and pay you after it’s sold. They sell it but you never get paid. Best way to avoid this is to deal with established E-bay companies such as i-Sold it. They have a store front, are known in their community, and you’re able to check their references.

4. You are pleasantly enjoying your day, reading emails on your computer. Suddenly you find an email from your bank security department, apologizing profusely, but there has been a computer crash or some other such tragedy and they need to restore your account. You see the bank’s well recognized logo, all appears to be in order, so you enter your account number, perhaps your social security number, perhaps your password.

You’ve just been a victim of “phishing,” a term used to describe computer con men who design a website to closely resemble, if not exactly duplicate, that of your bank. They get your information and then sell it to other thieves, or go out and use it to buy themselves all kinds of nice things. NEVER, NEVER, give this kind of information to anyone on the Internet or who call you by phone. YOU call your bank (or credit card company, or vendor) and determine if there is, in fact, a problem.

5. You are given an NSF check or a check with a closed account for $3000 . . . or whatever amount. You should report it to your local police department, and report it directly to the District Attorney’s Check Reimbursement Program, send a certified letter, return receipt requested, to the maker of the check, demanding payment and advising that s/he may, under the law, be liable for three times the amount of the NSF check, then file in Small Claims Court for amounts up to $7500. The court may well grant you a judgment for three times the amount, provided you follow the guidelines.

As you can see, there are many, many scams involving identity theft. You need to take strong, preventative measures NOW!

Some sites and sources you may want to consult:

Identity Theft Resource Center
www.idtheftcenter.org
Internet Complaint Center:
www.ic3.gov
Federal Trade Commission
www.ftc.gov
Escondido Police Department
839.4722
San Marcos Sheriff’s Station
736 2140
San Diego County District Attorney’s Office
Identity Theft
619.531.3660

 

 

 

 

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